Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Friends, Start Your Gardens!

It's that time!  The light at the end of the winter tunnel.  For many the seed catalogs have been piling up, orders placed, and now it's time to get to work.  Spring really is just around the corner!

My husband and I grow a lot of our own food every year (at least from the plant kingdom), but I don't consider myself to be much of a gardener.  I can't keep a house plant alive to save my life, but somehow I manage to have a slightly green thumb with the plants that grow outside. Though I never gave it much thought as a kid, having a vegetable garden seemed inevitable for me.  The family who I spent much of my formative years with, while mom & dad worked, had a giant garden (at least in the eyes of a child) and did a lot of canning and freezing all summer long.  My paternal great-grandparents were homesteaders and my maternal grandparents had a garden as did my aunt & uncle on that side.  These same family members also took the time to process and preserve the fruits of their labor each season.  As my brother and I became more "responsible", we put in a family garden of our own.  Growing our own vegetables was always kind of a fun venture, though I never really spent much time out there.  

It wasn't until after I graduated from college that the urge to grow food struck.  As I moved from one rental house to the next I was thankful to have landlords who let me plant tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and whatever else I could fit on small strips of otherwise unused scraps of yard. It was so rewarding!

A common theme with the gardens of my youth was that they all existed within city limits on average sized city lots.  You don't have to live in the country to grow your own food.  As the slow food movement continues to grow, more and more community gardens are sprouting up all over. (Pun intended!)  If you're unfamiliar, a community garden is an area of otherwise unused land with public access that an ambitious cluster of folks organizes in to plots for their neighbors to use for their own growing needs or to feed the less fortunate.  Troy Gardens is a noteworthy example in the Madison area.  

If you are interested in growing some of your own food but feel intimidated, don't.  It can be as easy as planting a pot of herbs on your front step. Start small and you will ensure your success.  We can grow a surprisingly large bounty on a very small amount of real estate.  All you need is dirt, sunshine, water, and a plan.

Willy Street Co-op just published a fantastic article in their March 2012 "Reader" entitled "Container Gardening for the Urban Farmer".  The article is chock full of easy to digest information on how and why to grow your own vegetables, no matter where you live. Willy St Co-op also offers community classes on a variety of gardening topics this time of year.  One of my favorite resources is "Wisconsin Garden Guide" by Jerry Minnich.   That was my go to reference when I first really got in to vegetable gardening.  Mother Earth News has been helping homesteaders since the 70's. Their publications are relevant for city and country dwellers alike.  You can access most of their articles online for quick reference.  For the serious gardener they also offer an online gardening tool that helps with your planning.  Finally, many local universities offer classes and information through their horticulture departments.  Here in Madison we have a wealth of information available through our UW Extension programs.  And the UW West Research Center has trial gardens that are free and open to the public as well as special events for families focused on helping us all learn how to garden.  

In my experience the most rewarding vegetables to grow when first getting started are tomatoes, peas, green beans, and herbs (basil, parsley, chives, dill...) Nothing snazzes up an ordinary dish throughout the summer months like fresh herbs, especially when they come from right outside your door.  A pot of cherry tomatoes can be more fun than a candy store. And climbing vines of peas and green beans take us back to childhood fairy tales, never mind the delicious fun of eating these legumes right off the vine.  

A warm place for a nap.
If you had hoped to start your own seedlings for an anticipated summer garden, now is the time to get them in their little dirt incubators.  I have come full circle with this.  I used to buy all of my seedlings. Then I slowly began growing my own until one year I purchased an indoor collapsible greenhouse and grew all of them myself.  There definitely is something very rewarding about playing a part in the creation of new life.  Seedlings are a joy from start to finish, but I discovered that growing all of them myself became a more daunting task than I was interested in.  Gradually I cut back and now I'm back to buying my seedlings and taking in the orphans of friends' efforts.  

Whether you are starting your garden from seed or buying plants be mindful of your sources.  Just as with food, you vote with your dollars.  Buying seeds and plants that originate from Monsanto and other unethical corporations just continue to feed these maleficent giants.  There has been a lot of controversy in the media about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) when it comes to our food system.  In my humble opinion there is no controversy and the answer is clear.  Monsanto and the GMO "food" they are pushing serves only one purpose and it is not the welfare of our health or environment.  It is about global control and greed.  Whether you agree or not, in an effort to support our own local economy the ideal source of your seeds and seedlings would be from a local farmer or nursery that you trust.  Early in the growing season our local farmer's markets are filled with seedlings ready for our gardens.  It's okay to ask them where they get their seeds so you can make the best choice for you and your family.  Here is a useful article from GroEdibles where you can see Monsanto owned companies and find a list of businesses from whom you can buy Monsanto-free seeds.  

If your ambition takes you beyond a few containers on your back porch, a helpful tip I highly recommend is keeping a journal.  It doesn't have to be fancy, but it will make our efforts easier as you garden from year to year.  I have a ring binder with blank paper and folders.  I keep track of the varieties I plant, where I bought them, plant and harvest dates, and problems I encounter.  The folders in my binder are for helpful articles and pages from books I want to reference again.  Our garden is 30 ft x 22 ft (fairly sizable) so I also draw out a simple diagram of my planting rotation year to year.  It makes my life so much easier when life is a little more hectic and I find time to plant when I can.  Last year I tried a different journaling technique.  I took a wall calendar that I otherwise had no use for and did my journaling on it.  Now as I make plans for this growing season I can see month by month at a glance what I need to be doing or should be expecting.   My calendar journal reminded me that I wanted to write this post!

Locally owned gardening centers, such as Johannsen's, can be not only great resources for  supplies but also a wealth of information.  And though you may be tempted by the siren songs of high priced fancy gardening equipment, having a garden doesn't have to be expensive.  The goal, really, is to save you money in the long run.  Naturally, if you decide to get more serious about gardening you may want to upgrade to nicer equipment as your budget allows, but to get started old kitchen tools and garage sales will suffice .  Pea and Green Bean vines don't know the difference between decorative wrought iron trellises or old window screens propped up with 2x4's.  

If you are looking to advance beyond container gardening, but are still feeling overwhelmed by the idea of getting a garden started, Madison FarmWorks offers some amazing services.  Consultant, Megan Cain, came out to help us last year solve some problems we were having.  She was friendly, knowledgeable, and right on with her solutions.  They will work with you on meeting your needs from plot location all the way up to installing your garden and tending it for you.  These folks are responsible for the beautiful community garden now located on the capitol square. 

I'm not going to try to convince you that gardening isn't a lot of work.  It certainly can be and to be honest it's not even something that I love to do.  The rewards however outweigh the costs, which is the part that I do love.  The joy of supplying my small family with nutritious food that was grown out of our own efforts is addictive.  As is the feeling I get when I support local farmers who do it for me.  If you aren't interested in growing food for yourselves, even on a small scale, please consider joining a CSA and/or shopping your local farmer's markets when available (now is the time to sign up for a 2012 CSA).  Last year I scaled back our garden and found a nice balance that works for us.  We grow some things, get some from a small CSA share, and shop the farmer's market for anything additional. Find what works for you and reap the rewards that home grown food can bring.  I have been growing food for the past 20 years,  and am by no means an expert on vegetable gardening, but if you have questions please post them in the comments and I will do what I can to help.  

My 2011 pantry

On a side note, I have to send a warm thank you to Sarah of Sarah's Place.  Being new to the blogoshpere, I have a lot to learn.  In her February 22, 2012, post,  "Urban Hallway & Sharing an Award", Sarah nominated me (along with 4 others) for a Leibster Award.  I was shocked to receive such an accolade.  I love Sarah's blog and find her approach and interaction with her followers to be inspiring.  According to Sarah, the Leibster award was originally meant for newer blogs- those with fewer than 200 followers.  With just 7 "followers", I definitely qualify. ;)  When writing these blog posts it's hard to know what my audience thinks or if anyone is even reading.  Sarah's nomination gave me a nice boost of confidence and I thank her for that.  
The guidelines for accepting this award are:
  • Show your thanks to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
  • Reveal your top 5 picks for the award and let them know by leaving them a comment on their blog.
  • Post the award on your blog.
  • Bask in the love from the most supportive people on the blogsphere – other bloggers.
  • Most of all – have fun and spread the karma.
Sorry to keep you in suspense, but I am going to reserve my top 5 nominations for a later date.
Thanks again Sarah, and thanks to all of you for reading! 


  1. Your pantry photo is inspiring!

  2. Thanks Timyra! It's a fair amount of work, but it's a pretty fun place to "shop" all winter long. :)

  3. This certainly gives me a lot to think about. I go back and forth on gardening. Should I? Or shouldn't I? We grew some tomatoes, peppers and herbs last year with success, and I've already started herbs for this year. They're doing well, and I thought I'd just use the Madison Farmer's Market, and others, for everything else. Now, I'm rethinking that. I would love to do what you do, and I'd love for my pantry to look like yours. I have the time, so, why not? Right? Hmmmm....I just received the Baker Creek catalog, so maybe it's a sign. :)

    Thank you for this Alyssa, all the info and links are SO helpful.

    And you're very welcome for the award. You definitely deserve it. I've said it before, but I am sincerely grateful to have a blog like yours in my inbox.

  4. I'm glad you feel inspired Sarah! Growing your own food, even on a small scale, is tremendously rewarding. When I started I added to my garden a little each year. I found that having a CSA really opened my eyes, and palate, to vegetables I had never tried or even thought of. One of the things I love most about my canning projects is sharing all that lovely food with friends and family. Gift giving has never been so easy. :) Thanks for the comment Sarah and for all of the support!

  5. Yes, I was just thinking I could probably start greens early this year! I need to get my seeds. Your pantry looks wonderful! Isn't that the most satisfying feeling?

  6. Thanks Otehlia! Spring greens are the best!! I am pretty behind in my seed planting efforts this year, so had better get to it. Happy planting!!